Tag Archives: Time-Life

Hank Williams: The Legend Begins

Remastered Health & Happiness Shows + Earlier Bonuses

This three-disc set returns to domestic print the two discs of live radio performances previously anthologized on the 1993 Heath & Happiness Shows. These programs were remastered from transcription discs cut in October 1949 at the Castle studio in Nashville, and though there are a few minor audio artifacts, the sound quality – particularly the instrumental balance of the Drifting Cowboys and the presence of Williams’ voice – is exceptional. Each of the eight shows stretched to 15 minutes, when augmented by ad copy read by a local announcer; here they clock in a few minutes shorter. Williams opens each program with the Sons of the Pioneers’ “Happy Rovin’ Cowboy” and fiddler Jerry Rivers closes each episode with the instrumental “Sally Goodin”.

In between the opening and closing numbers, Williams sings some of his best-loved early hits, original songs, and gospel numbers, and much like the later performances gathered on The Complete Mothers’ Best Recordings… Plus! (or its musical-excerpt version, The Unreleased Recordings), the spontaneity and freshness of the live takes often outshine the better-known studio recordings. Williams’ wife Audrey accompanies him on a few duets and sings a couple of challenging solo slots; Jerry Rivers shines both as an accompanist and in short solo highlights. As with the Mothers’ Best shows, Williams is revealed to be not only a revered singer and songwriter, but a master host and entertainer.

The set’s third disc includes a dozen rare Williams recordings. From 1938, a fifteen-year-old Williams is heard singing the novelty number “Fan It” and the then-current movie theme “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” These are rough recordings, but a priceless opportunity to hear just how precocious Williams was as a teenager. Two years later Williams recorded a number of home demos, including the four standards covered here. The recording quality is tinny and the discs are far from pristine, but they’re clear enough to reveal the adult Hank Williams voice beginning to emerge. The final six tracks jump ahead eleven years, past the Health & Happiness shows to a March of Dimes show from 1951.

The Health & Happiness recordings haven’t always had a healthy or happy history. MGM released overdubbed versions in 1961, and the 1993 reissue was plagued by physical problems with the transcriptions. But as with the Mothers’ Best release, Joe Palmaccio has deftly resuscitated ephemeral, sixty-year-old recordings with his restoration and remastering magic. Given that these discs were only meant to last through a radio broadcast or two, their picture of a twenty-six-year-old Williams just breaking into Nashville is astonishing. Those with an earlier reissue will value the sonic upgrade, historic bonus tracks, 4-panel digipack, 16-page booklet and detailed liner notes from Williams biographer Colin Escott. [©2011 hyperbolium dot com]

George Jones: The Great Lost Hits

Terrific cherry-picked set of Jones’ 1965-71 Musicor sides

George Jones’ recordings for the Musicor label weren’t so much lost as hung up in legal limbo. When Jones left Musicor for Epic in a rancorous split with label owner and manager Pappy Daily, seven years (1965-71) of prime recordings were left to haphazard reissue and illegitimate copying, and worse yet, inferior contemporary re-recordings. This is a textbook example of the cultural blockades created by the multiparty complexity of music licensing, restrictive copyright laws and the lawyer tax that attaches to just about everything. Jones waxed over 250 master recordings for Musicor during the early prime of his recording life, so the riches that have been locked in the vault are substantial.

True, the Musicor sessions didn’t always live up the standard of “Walk Through This World With Me,” “Where Grass Won’t Grow” or “A Good Year for the Roses,” but these simpler productions provide key contrast to the more complex arrangements Billy Sherrill would employ at Epic. Among the thirty-four tracks are twenty-three charting hits (missing only “No Blues is Good News” and the Melba Montgomery duet “(Close Together) As You and Me”), and eleven album sides. Lesser known singles like “Small Time Laboring Man” are complemented by excellent obscurities later resurrected by Keith Whitley, Elvis Costello, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Emmylou Harris and others. Listening to the high quality of these performances it seems criminal for seven prime years of Jones’ career to have been available only to collectors who’d maintained a turntable.

Bear Family produced the full Musicor output on a pair of 2009 box sets (Walk Through This World With Me and A Good Year for the Roses), but the price tag of these imports is out of reach for many. Time Life’s two-CD set gets to the core of Jones’ greatness in the latter half of the 1960s, and though a couple dozen more sides could have fit on these discs (their absence no doubt a by-product of the U.S. per-track royalty structure), what’s here is true country gold. A few tracks seem to have been re-mastered from vinyl as there are a few minor pops and ticks, but the fidelity is excellent and the performances uniformly superb. The sixteen page booklet includes terrific photos and informative liner notes by Colin Escott. If you can’t afford the box sets, this is a must-have. [©2010 hyperbolium dot com]

George Jones’ Home Page
Time Life’s Home Page

Kenny Rogers: The First 50 Years

KennyRogers_TheFirst50YearsExcellent 3-CD collection divided into duets, stories and love songs

Time Life’s 3-CD, 45-song set includes most of the hits you’d expect, but presents them in an original order. Rather than dividing Rogers’ career into eras (pre-fame doo wop and jazz groups, New Christy Minstrels, First Edition, solo success), the discs each present a facet of his artistry: duets, stories and love songs. It’s an interesting way to listen to Rogers’ catalog, focusing first on the flexibility with which he partnered with a diverse range of country, pop and soul stars that include Dolly Parton, Sheena Easton, Gladys Knight and Kim Carnes. Disc two demonstrates Rogers’ talent for telling dramatic and humorous stories, bringing characters to life in well-known country and pop hits and lesser-known album tracks like Mickey Newbury’s “San Francisco Mabel Joy.”

Disc 3 looks at Rogers’ way with a love song, which typically found him singing ballads and moving from country to pop. Rogers was particularly successful in this vein in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s with hits that include “She Believes in Me,” “You Decorated My Life” and “Lady,” and also found success with mid-tempo numbers like “Love Will Turn You Around.” Most of Rogers’ biggest hits are here, stretching from the First Edition’s “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town” through his most recent #1, “Buy Me a Rose,” with Alison Krauss and Billy Dean, and his most recent chart entry, “Calling Me,” with Don Henley. There are only a few missing chart-toppers, “Daytime Friends,” “Love or Something Like It,” “Share Your Love With Me” and “Tomb of the Unknown Love.”

If you’re after the hits, you might prefer 42 Ultimate Hits, but if you want to get an overall sense of Rogers’ artistry in a very listenable program, this is an excellent package. Fans will find three new recordings here, one on each disc, including a duet with Dolly Parton, “Tell Me That You Love Me,” that’s good enough to be Rogers’ next hit, a cover of Lionel Richie’s “Goodbye,” and the love song “Loving You is a Natural Thing to Do.” The discs are packaged in a 5.5 x 10-inch cardboard folder that slips inside a sleeve. The 24-page booklet includes photos, excellent notes by Colin Escott, and chart details. This is a good buy for anyone who loves Rogers’ music but hasn’t upgraded their vinyl to CD, and would make a nice gift. [©2009 hyperbolium dot com]

Kenny Rogers’ Home Page
Time Life Records’ Home Page

Various Artists: Songs 4 Worship: Country Live

Various_Songs4WorshipCountryLiveFine collection of worship, but not all country

The extensive and popular Songs 4 Worship series has included themed and Spanish-language releases as well as soul, gospel and country sets. Like 2007’s edition, this collection of live performances (recorded at the Ryman Auditorium) often strays far from country sounds. The opening track by Lenny LeBlanc is a fine song of praise, but the presence of steel guitar doesn’t keep it country. The gospel of the Palmetto State Quartet’s “Trading My Sorrows” is terrific, rousing the crowd into clapping, but again there’s really nothing country in it. Crossover artists Rebecca Lynn Howard and Bryan White are both in good voice but fail to deliver on their country roots, and even the rootsy stalwart Ricky Skaggs is softened by the stage band’s accompaniment. Where the show plants some roots is with Collin Raye, whose bluesy delivery gives a twangy front to the band’s performance. Marty Raybon also finds some country soul in the his lower register. Ironically, the album’s most countrified tracks are studio cuts borrowed from earlier albums by Randy Travis, Alison Krauss, Diamond Rio and Alabama. The live band fits nicely behind the album’s live acts, but it fails to make the country singers sound country. This is all the more obvious when compared to the studio cuts. This is a good album of worship and praise, with plenty of energy in the live performances, just note that most of the twang is in the previously released studio tracks. [©2009 hyperbolium dot com]

Various Artists: Let Freedom Sing

various_letfreedomsingPerfectly timed musical anthology of the civil rights movement

Two years ago, just when then-Senator Barack Obama was announcing his run for the highest public office in the U.S., the producers at Time Life began work on this stupendous 3-disc, fifty-eight track collection. Scheduled in celebration of February’s Black History Month (and in conjunction with a PBS/TV-One documentary), the set gains an indelible exclamation point from the inauguration of President Obama as the 44th chief executive of the United States of America. Throughout these fifty-eight tracks one can hear spirit, belief, faith, fear, sadness, hope and empowerment that were an inspirational source from which participants in the civil rights movement drew strength and a narrative soundtrack of historical events.

The fluidity with which music intertwines daily life makes it more of a people’s art than other performance media, self-sung as field hollers and church spirituals, passed as folk songs by troubadours, and saturating the ether of popular consciousness through records, radio, television and movies. Music is an accessible medium for documenting one’s times, creatable with only a human voice as an instrument. Like speech, music can both record and instigate, but unlike speech, musical melodies readily anchor themselves in one’s memory, forever associated with a time or place or person or event. That duality allows this set to play both as a public chronology of historic events and, for those old enough to have been there, a personal history of one’s emotional response.

The set opens a few years before America’s entry into World War II with the a cappella spiritual “Go Down Moses,” the dire reportage of “Strange Fruit” and the protest of “Uncle Sam Says.” The ironies of post-war America continued to be questioned in “No Restricted Signs” and “Black, Brown and White,” but as the ‘40s turned into the ‘50s, the tone became more direct, and at times angry. Historic court decisions and watershed protests intertwined with horrific killings, and this was reflected in the documentary tunes “The Death of Emmett Till, Parts 1 & 2” and “The Alabama Bus,” and the questing lyrics of The Weavers’ “The Hammer Song” and Big Bill Broonzy’s “When Do I Get to Be Called a Man?”

The set list follows a rough chronology of recording dates, but the thematic flow paints the more circuitous route of gains and setbacks, hopes and disappointments, triumphs and retrenchments that highlighted and pockmarked the movement’s progress. The turbulence of 1965, the year of Malcolm X’s assassination, provides a particularly keen microcosm of the conflicts, segueing the righteous protest of J.B. Lenoir’s “Alabama Blues” with The Dixie Hummingbird’s temperate ode “Our Freedom Song,” and matching the cutting irony of Oscar Brown, Jr.’s “Forty Acres and a Mule” with The Impressions’ compassionate call “People Get Ready.”

The last half of the sixties offered up beachheads in Aretha Franklin’s “Respect,” James Brown’s “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud,” Sly & The Family Stone’s “Stand!,” and Lee Dorsey’s pre-Pointers Sisters original “Yes We Can, Part 1.” At the same time, assassinations and riots yielded John Lee Hooker’s “The Motor City is Burning” and George Perkins & The Silver Stars’ funereal “Cryin’ in the Streets, Part 1.” At the turn from the 60s into the 70s the movement seemed unstoppable, inciting Motown to veer into social commentary with The Temptations’ “Message From a Black Man,” provoking the Chi-Lites to editorialize with “(For God’s Sake) Give More Power to the People,” and launching Curtis Mayfield’s solo career with deep thinking, adventurous productions like “We the People.” Mayfield would be joined by Marvin Gaye with the release of What’s Going On, and the catalog of injustice and angst “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler).”

The momentum continued in the ‘70s, but not without opposition, anger and dissent. Gil Scott-Heron provides a stream-of-consciousness news report from the frontlines with “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” the Undisputed Truth’s “Smiling Faces Sometimes” displays caution bordering on paranoia, and Aaron Nevill’s “Hercules” is both paranoid and pessimistic. The embers of empowerment still burned, as heard in Bob Marley’s “Get Up, Stand Up,” which pairs nicely with the collection’s earlier reggae tune, a cover of Nina Simone’s “Young Gifted and Black.” The set jump-cuts from the soul sounds of the O’Jays’ “Give the People What They Want” to the hip-hop works of the Jungle Brothers’ “Black is Black,” Chuck D’s “The Pride” and Sounds of Blackness’ “Unity.” Disc three includes new works by old masters Solomon Burke and Mavis Staples, but omits key figures of the ‘80s and ‘90s such as Public Enemy, KRS-One, and Mos Def. The set closes with the gospel spiritual “Free at Last,” answering the call of disc one’s opener.

These events, stories and lessons resonate against an evolving palette of musical forms – doo-wop, jazz, gospel, blues, soul, rap – pioneered by African Americans in parallel with the civil rights movement. The pairings of stories and sounds tell an indelible story of faith, belief, empowerment and spirit. The producers have mixed little-known gems with the movement’s hits, providing much deserved exposure to the former and much welcomed context to the latter. Production quality is top-notch, with sharp remastering, an introduction by Chuck D, and Grammy-worthy liner notes by Colin Escott that interweave song details and historical moments. Disc one is mono, except tracks 11, 13-18; disc two is stereo, except tracks 1, 3, 5, 7, 8, 11, 12, 14, 21; disc three is stereo. This is a fantastic music collection that doubles as the soundtrack to a history lesson. [©2009 hyperbolium dot com]

Listen to Let Freedom Sing, Disc 1
Listen to Let Freedom Sing, Disc 2
Listen to Let Freedom Sing, Disc 3
Time Life Records Home Page

Hank Williams: The Unreleased Recordings

As good as Hank Williams got

It’s rare that an artist who’s been turned into an icon can ever again be seen in mortal form. But such is the case for the Hank Williams heard on these three CDs of transcriptions from 1951. With these fifty-four previously unreleased tracks, the dark saint of country music is delivered from fifty-five years of canonization as a hard-working musician striving to please his audience. Williams’ much anthologized commercial recordings will forever keep his star aloft, but these newly released live-in-the-studio renderings, waxed under the sponsorship of Mother’s Finest for radio broadcast, crackle with a level of intensity and vocal clarity not always captured in MGM’s studios. Best of all, 1951 was a “career year” for Willliams, a year in which his artistry and superstardom hit simultaneous peaks. The crush of fame drew him repeatedly to the road and exacerbated the need to pre-record his 15-minute shows for Mother’s Best, rendering into lacquer a one-of-a-kind portrait of Williams as artist and entertainer.

Williams filled each fifteen minute program with his own classic songs as well as numerous covers. Chestnuts like “On Top of Old Smokey” are lit up with emotional fire, and his soaring solo vocal on “Cool Water” resounds with the drama of thirst and relief. A large helping of hymns are equally impressive as Williams and his Drifiting Cowboys testify in close harmony, and the recitations of alter ego Luke the Drifter are recounted on “Pictures from Life’s Other Side.” The portrait drawn includes details of Williams’ influences, but it’s the picture of a living, breathing performer that’s so breathtakingly compelling. The ephemeral nature of these recordings – they were intended to be aired on the radio with no thought of commercial issue – renders the mood more relaxed than was routinely fostered in a regular studio date. The sheer volume of material Williams performed (this is only the first of several sets that will cover these recordings) creates a looseness that unwinds the fabrications of the recording industry. Williams’ aside, “I like this one,” as he launches into the fourth verse of “Dear John” is a humanizing touch that shows how comfortable he was with other writers’ material, and how easily his charm translated to the stage.

Time-Life has cherry-picked the original shows, rather than providing raw transfers of the transcription discs. Listeners get a taste of the original shows’ continuity through snippets of song introductions, but the bulk of Williams’ patter has been trimmed away in favor of musical selections. The non-chronological ordering also dispels the shows’ original performance arcs, but the producers have sequenced their picks terrifically and the overall result yields a superior experience for most listeners. These choices may displease archivists, completists and old-time radio fans, but Time-Life no doubt figured this approach would have the broadest appeal, helping defray the cost of securing reissue rights and remastering the original discs. Perhaps a full program could be released separately or included as a bonus in one of the upcoming releases of additional Mother’s Best material.

Other than minor audio artifacts on a few tracks (e.g., a crackle in the background of “I Dreamed That the Great Judgment Morning”), the sound quality of these recordings is simply astonishing, with Williams’ voice clear and edgy, his band evenly balanced behind him, and steel player Don Helms and fiddler Jerry Rivers prominently featured in the mixes. Though primitive, the direct-to-disc technology used in 1951 captured the live sound with brilliance and clarity. The transfers (by Alan Stoker) and restorations/remasterings (by should-be Grammy-winner Joe Palmaccio) are superb, and Jett Williams’ introductory notes provide a quick history of the original acetates and the lawsuits that have swirled around them. Colin Escott’s liner and song notes are detailed and informative, and the 40-page booklet (which is unfortunately stapled into the folder) is beautifully designed and filled with photos.

These are among the best performances Williams ever laid down on record, and among the truest recordings anyone ever made of him. You could remove “among” and still be right. Given Williams’ acclaim and the scrutiny given to his career, it’s mind-boggling that these discs were bottled up for nearly sixty years. This set is so musically riveting and artistically revealing as to obsolete traditional hit compendiums as the best introduction to Williams’ genius. An emotional veil has been lifted between Williams and his fans; a veil previously unknown to all but those fans who were by their radios in ’51. [©2008 hyperbolium dot com]